Fresh Ink

So it’s officially into Autumn now and I have survived what several people have described to me as the most god-awful hot summer in Sydney’s recorded history, with a record breaking number of days in the high 30s and low 40s, humidity levels that make it feel like you’re swimming and your clothes stick to you from the second you get out of the shower, and breezes that feel a bit like standing in front of a hair dryer.

So I did the intelligent thing and picked up some new tattoos, my first two in Australia.

In my defense, when these were booked I did not count on it being so hot that I almost sweated my healing ointment off within minutes of stepping outside. That was not pleasant. Have you ever had A&D drip down the inside of your arm, stained with the various inks that your skin is slowly pushing out during the healing process? It’s the grossest feeling thing.

20170204_191020I started off with a design I’ve been wanting for some time now, Morpheus from the Sandman comics. The problem was that I wanted him on my right arm, which is mostly poppy and colorful, and Morpheus is a character of black and white with a few dots of color to him. Thankfully my artist (Melanie Milne, if you ever find yourself in Sydney and in need of a great tattoo) was far more visually skilled than I am and came up with a concept that worked: incorporating something a little bit like genie smoke, with slumber-sand slipping through his fingers and transforming into a rainbow hue of vapors as they moved down my arm. It came out really, really good and is almost fully healed up now with next to no color loss during the process.

I love Sandman, it’s in a three-way fight with Transmetropolitan and Lucifer for my favorite graphic novel series, and it feels kind of right to have the lord of dreams and stories taking up a hefty chunk of my dominant arm, the arm I do most of my writing with.

20170226_194132.jpgThe second one I actually got just this past Sunday. It’s based on one of those films where I watched it as a kid, and I rewatch it as an adult, and I go “wow, so this had a bigger influence on my aesthetic than I ever realized.” I am speaking, of course, of the filthy muppet monsters of The Dark Crystal. In a wrap around my wrist, ending just before the joint, I’ve got one of the Mystics, his corresponding Skeksis, and the broken crystal that splintered them from one glowing being into two muck-bound magical creatures. Sorry if the picture is a bit wonky and distorted, but getting a decent shot of a wrap is really difficult. It’s still a bit of a work in progress, it only covers 2/3 of the area and I’m going in at the end of March to fill in the back side a little bit. The astrological signs of the Great Conjunction and the silhouette of the Skeksis castle where the shattered crystal is located, most likely. I’m looking forward to it. That’s most of one arm fulled sleeved up, with just a couple of small gaps to fill in.


Speaking of new ink, I’ve also surged ahead in writing. I spend much of my lunch break each day scribbling away, and then in the evenings as I can. I’ve broken 45,000 words recently, on the side project, and it feels good. Writing multiple stories at once is nice because if you feel the burn out coming on, you can change gears, still be productive, and change back afterwards. You’re still getting 3,000 words down in a session, just split across two stories instead of 2,000 words in one.

It is funny, though, that I find myself getting inspired for one story what I’m writing in the other. I had one passage that I wrote for the secondary piece, and then later came back to it, went “ugh it’s too good, it needs to be in the primary one” and poached it, replacing it with something that fit the tone a little better. It’s helped to define a lot of the elements of each story by making me think about them, and making me concentrate on not accidentally sinking into the same prose for radically different tales. Having to keep the narrative voices distinct naturally drives the text along.

Writing at the office has also broken me of my habit of getting lost in research holes. If I only have 30-45 minutes to work on something with the deadline of “my boss will get antsy if I keep going,” it’s excellent at keeping me from popping on google to check something and then half an hour has gone by and I’m intimately familiar with the history of the textile industry when I just wanted to make sure I was using the right word for part of an old carpet.

Not to say that the research stops, it’s just far more compartmentalized. I’m still accruing books like mad and I even sprung for a cheap laptop to make note taking easier, so I can just pop it open in bed and jot down random points of interest.

Review: The Heart of What Was Lost

51qdqrflmcl-_sy346_So, obviously, this is going to have some spoilers for Memory, Sorrow & Thorn, the story beginning just a few weeks after that series ends. If you haven’t read them, tread lightly, because they do have some good twists and you’ll want to read them before tackling Heart here.

I am actually going to be the weird guy here and say that I enjoyed this more than the original trilogy. That seems vaguely heretical coming from a fantasy fan, but I actually didn’t get into MS&T until I was in my late twenties, and at the behest of my wife. I knew that it was a good series but it was kind of relegated to the “oh god, I don’t have time to devote to a doorstopper fantasy series right now” pile and when I did have time I inevitably ended up with some new release in my lap.

I feel that Heart manages to capture my favorite aspects of the original series while jettisoning many of the parts I found arduous. Now, don’t get me wrong, I did like all four books of the original trilogy (god damnit Williams) but there were segments that you could cut out and not lose anything from the story. What I loved was the sense of depth and history that he managed to infuse the setting with, and speaking through unreliable narrators long before that became a standard trope and the basis for many grimdark series. The idea that ancient prophecies about fighting back dark lords might actually refer to genocidal human imperialists, and that they might not realize it until after they tried to fulfill those prophecies with themselves as the heroes, that’s really good stuff and you can see how it shaped the genre as a whole.

Heart takes the idea that even in a fantasy conflict there is more depth than first appears, and applies it here to an incredibly stereotypical conflict: big, burly viking warriors versus sadistic dark elves.

Except the vikings actually kind of did wipe out the elves’ fore-bearers without much provocation, and only a few members of the current leadership would consider offering mercy to even the women and children of their enemies. These are the kinds of vikings who will very literally ravish and pillage your town in the worst ways, but we are conditioned to consider them the heroes of the story through certain framing devices and juxtaposition with enemies who are far worse.

Except the aren’t.

There wasn’t very much story told from the perspective of the Norns, the darker half of the elven/fairy race in the original trilogy. Here a full half of the book explores their culture, their religion, the interplay between different state powers, and the vast web of personalities that inhabit their mountain strongholds. While they served as faceless mooks in the first books, you kind of retroactively feel awful for them here.

The story is told through three perspectives: the Rimmergard lord Isgrimnur is trying to deal with his bloodthirsty (and rightly so, in some ways) lieutenant and with an infuriatingly enigmatic Sithi emissary both at the same time, each pulling him in a different direction when it comes to approaching the siege of the Norn lands. There are a pair of mercenary warriors who find themselves very far from home and not sure how to deal with that. Finally there is Viyeki, a military engineer from the Norn homeland, serving at the behest of his elder and the leader of the engineer corps.

The meat of the story is in this last third. We kind of know what to expect of the Rimmersmen from their prominent role as shock troops in the original trilogy, but the Norn stuff is very new and incredibly interesting. Their immortality adds a certain tragedy to them; each of them has hundreds if not thousands of years under their belt, knowledge of the forgotten world lost forever in the swing of a sword or an axe. You get a glimpse at their magic practitioners, the engineers, and the military forces who consider themselves dead from the moment they pick up a blade. Each one wants a different thing out of the conflict, and is willing to sell out certain aspects of their timeless culture to bolster what they consider important. Underneath it all you come to understand that the Storm King is far from the scariest being in their wasteland home, and there’s a very good reason that they came willingly to his banner when faced with some horrifying alternatives.

I like antagonists who make me think, which is one of William’s strengths.

It’s short as well, which forces him to condense what I like instead of meandering off. There’s a certain number of set pieces here, only a couple dozen named characters, and the immediacy brings a certain vividness and urgency to the narrative. While MS&T was all about sweeping fantasy, exploring the corners of the world and forging alliances with far-flung kindred in the face of obliteration, this is about a very bad siege. For the people involved in it, the expansive world outside no longer exists, and their entire lives revolve around sapper tunnels, food, and how and when they want to die. Beyond the races, the only link to the first trilogy is that both stories deal heavily with the idea that history is not as it seems, that as a set of lies agreed upon by scholars it is subject to change and rewrite depending on who happens to be holding the biggest pen at the time.

It left me looking even more forward to the second trilogy, which this serves as a bridging novel to, The Last King of Osten Ard. I’d love to explore the depths of the Norn mountain stronghold even more fully than we got here, and I especially love the hints he’s continuing to drop about the origin of the Garden from which all the elven peoples originally sprung.

I also kind of wish more books were like this. At his best I consider Williams the master of blending elements of grimdark with epic fantasy. It isn’t a curse-laden swear-and-rapefest like grimmer offerings, but it has enough unexpected deaths, a mature approach to medieval politics and too bloody-minded a take on combat to fit comfortably among the true heroic fantasy out there. And that’s to it’s benefit, because whitewashed heroic fantasy gets very old, very fast, and I’d much rather have the best of it mixed in with deeper questions about colonization, revisionist history, culture clashes and misunderstood prophecies.

Review: The Stars Are Legion

51a7Ho628kL.jpgSo, I’ll start this by admitting some bias off the bat. I’m a big Kameron Hurley fan. I’ve been entranced with Worldbreaker Saga trilogy ever since I picked it up a few years ago after the blurb piqued my interest. I went on to grab all of the short fiction I could get my hands on, along with the essays she’d been putting out and would eventually collect in the Geek Feminist Revolution last year. I’m eagerly awaiting the third Worldbreaker book. I consider her amazing essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” to be part of my worldbuilding bible and something I go back and read in its entirety any time I sit down to start working on some new setting, just to make sure I’m not inadvertently letting important things fall through the cracks like historians have done with our own history forever.

So, you might imagine I’ve been waiting for The Stars Are Legion with baited breath ever since I first heard rumblings about it. Her take on space opera, as a big old standalone, which serves as both a love letter to the genre and a skewering of many of its less savory tropes and stereotypes.

I finished it yesterday night and I was not disappointed. It actually blew away my expectations.

I am left with the quandary of how to give it a good review and explain why I liked it without accidentally spoiling something, because the novel is packed to the brim with twists and unexpected turns in the narrative, characters dying ingloriously and without a second though, learning something and then having to unlearn it just a few chapters later. I will try to explain what really stood out to me without spoiling, but if you’re really concerned about avoiding that I’d say stop at the end of this paragraph and just go with me saying: buy it, 2017 is young but this is already in my top five for the year, it’s one of the most imaginative pieces of science fiction I’ve read in ages.

Okay, all that out of the way.

The first and most striking thing about the novel is that it’s all women. It’s not a setting where men were discarded, or killed, or rendered pointless. There’s no mention of men whatsoever. The concept of men does not exist. Masculinity is not a thing, and neither is femininity by sheer virtue of having nothing to compare or contrast it to. The romances that pop up throughout the book are both queer and not, because while they’re woman-on-woman, there’s not an alternative.

That really shouldn’t be a big thing, because I can think of plenty of space opera novels I read from the 70s and 80s where there wasn’t a single woman of note and all the speaking roles were played by men, but here we are. It does stand out and I had to make some mental adjustments; for the first few chapters every time a crowd scene is described I had to remind myself not to imagine any male faces mixed in.

Second, and arguably the most important thing about the novel, is that it’s all about pregnancy. Everything in the setting is organic. Metal is beyond rare, practically nonexistant. The ships are huge living beings, calling to mind Moya and the other leviathans from Farscape (huge points in the book’s favor, that being one of my favorite shows ever), and their inhabitants are so connected to their ships that their wombs serve as… well, replicators and engineering chambers for the ship to create new parts in. Women might give birth to fleshy, veined cogs for the great machine as easily as what we’d imagine as a baby. Women can give birth to horrible weapons, vehicles, even the things that grow into the world-sized superships that make up the fleet.

Pregnancy and birth have always been in SF/F, but usually along the lines of body horror. Frank Herbert’s got the Axlotl Tanks of the Tleilaxu people in Dune, basically women stripped of sentience and reduced to breeding machines. Other writers have mimicked or parodied that. On a separate but related vein you might have something like Alien and the xenomorphs’ whole “gimmick” basically being walking sexual assault monsters that impregnate you and then you die. I could probably come up with a laundry list of alien or weird pregnancy metaphors in science fiction, but you get where I’m going.

This is the first time where I’ve seen it play a central role and have it be equal parts horror and awe, kind of a reverence for the power of creation that isn’t positive or negative. It’s intriguing and left me wanting even more than the book gave me, which is a considerable amount. It’s like the odd child of Ursula le Guin and David Cronenberg. There’s horror there in the sense that things can go wrong in pregnancy, and mutations can occur, and pregnancy can be unwanted, but it’s a very grounded horror that does not reduce the female body to a host for us to gawk at.

This particular strain of organic, body horror influenced worldbuilding isn’t new ground for Hurley, but I feel like this is the first book of hers that made it into a central theme and created something beautiful out of it while her other books used it to sculpt the setting and accentuate political maneuvering. The closest would obviously be Worldbreaker with its peculiar blood and plant magic systems, but I always feel like the focal point of those books are more about gender roles, transgender issues, and layered ethical quandaries baked into transdimensional warfare and political intrigue. The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy also incorporates some of what we see here, set in a post apocalyptic world where technology is insectoid, but much more about picking apart religion and social norms than the bugtech (again, another stellar series you should pick up, monster bounty hunters with centipede weapons in a blasted wasteland ruled over by Islamic-inspired sects).

Overall, it really clicked with me. It brought me something new, and made it even more interesting than just the newness itself. Good characters, as I said a ton of plot twists, a world that is shown to you in brief glimpses and a history that slowly unfolds over the course of several hundred pages instead of being vomited at you in blocky paragraphs in between space battles.

Oh, and bazookas that fire homing squid bullets. Always a plus.

Reviews: Abomination, The Thousand Names, Norse Mythology

Since the weather here in Sydney, Australia can be described as somewhere between “wow, I didn’t know my sandals could melt like that” and “oh my god, I’m on the surface of the sun,” I’ve spent most of the weekend lounging in front of the air conditioner and getting some reading off my backlog.

51tk2cyu4nlAbomination by Gary Whitta is actually something that I’ve had on my kindle for over a year now but kept letting it slip off my radar as new books would come out, which I now regret. It’s a very good book and not for the reasons I went in expecting it to be. All of the blurbs talk about it melding together cosmic horror with historical combat, but truly I found it to have more in common with a really good lycanthrope story than anything else.

Just a lycanthrope story featuring things like knights templar, monstrous scarab beetles, and conflict between the Saxons and the leftovers of the Great Heathen Army in the 800s or thereabouts, featuring cameos by a variety of historical figures. Admittedly you are not going to find a lot of historical accuracy in those figures or in the years, but given that this book literally opens up with corrupted vatican officials using eldritch scrolls to transform animals into unstoppable berserk monsters, you kind of go in knowing it’s going to be pulpy alternate history. The fun comes from taking figures like Alfred the Great and trying to guess at what their reaction would be to the borderline apocalyptic events of the novel.

As far as negatives go, it has to be said that the characters are fairly stock with one or two exceptions, and you know how the PoV characters are going to react to anything well before they do. The honorable knight is going to be honorable, the tomboy girl who wants to join the elite monster hunting corps will act like a 90s movie action girl after being sexually threatened by some roving antagonists. But around that core there’s a fascinating story woven and I found the logistics of the… well, supernatural aspects, I guess, fairly compelling and page-turning. It’s a horror novel but most of the chapters are devoted to how to keep that horror contained using medieval tools and education, a combination I haven’t run into before.

It’s under a dollar this month so I’d definitely recommend picking it up if any of this interested you.

 

51ott4phrdl-_sx308_bo1204203200_Next, I finally got to another one, The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. Here is a book I found frustrating: I loved it, but I loved it because of the background rather than the foreground elements. Anyone who has read my blog or my writing knows that I am fascinated with the middle east and annoyed at how little it’s used as a springboard for genre fiction, and I’ve had this one recommended to me several times as Napoleon’s Cairo and Syria wrapped up in flintlock fantasy and bizarre shadow magic. Extremely my jam to the point that I put off reading it because I didn’t want it to influence some of my own mid-east fantasy works.

My frustration comes from Wexler crafting a really compelling take on fractured, fantasy Egypt, split between followers of an ancient religion, a new group of fanatics who have begun taking over, the exiled prince of the whole mess, and the everyday people who are living out their lives in the ruins. You’ve got a military divided into droves of barely-armed peasants led by singing priests, a western-style military force that had been trained by the imperialist powers during the height of the occupation, and dark forces lurking around the corners.

And then you take all of that and you wedge it into the corner and only catch glimpses of it while watching a bunch of totally-not-English/French soldiers go through the daily drama of life as an occupying force. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the hell out of Janus and Marcus as military characters who have a brain between them, Winter was great and I’m always cool with more LGTBQ representation in fantasy, Bobby is awesome, Feora is cool… but you don’t even have a single PoV character from this amazingly gripping world. There are a few chapters that tell things from the perspective of Jaffa, a neutral-ish lawkeeper in the city, and I found the three of them way more interesting than the rest of the book combined, and the hints that his chapters threw my way are what got me to go buy the rest of the series for reading later this month.

Don’t take any of that as a harsh critique, please, because I truly did love the book and kept turning pages, but it managed to push all my buttons without the payoff I was begging for at the same time. I’ve love a side-quel book written from the perspective of the auxies, the Redeemers, or anyone from Mother’s court even just going over the same events.

Also, I’m really glad I read it before getting too far into my own fantasy epic where one of the defining traits of one of the tribes is having grey-tinged skin from their close association with krakens and the tattoos they use leeching into their bodies, because I’m pretty sure it would be taken as a ripoff of the greyskins here.

 

515hhtyn0glFinally, the book I have been waiting on for months now is finally out and I read the whole thing in a sitting. I am speaking, of course, of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. I don’t know that I can say enough good things about this collection. It is the rare book that I can call flawless; something that I finished and wanted to read again. It is not a “Neil Gaiman book” in the traditional sense, he has tapped into an entirely different narrative voice. It addresses you as easily as some weird old one-eyed man chatting you up at a seedy pub somewhere and asking you if you’d like to hear some stories about gods long dead.

Now, I’m a giant, nitpicky mythology nerd and the Norse pantheon is about tied with the Greek one for me when it comes to myths I cut my teeth on, so I went in with a very high bar and was surprised to find it cleared with so much seeming ease. I’d honestly call it the defining take on all of these stories, having read many, many translations of each before now.

If you’re a Gaiman fan, you’ll be happy to know that in spite of this radically different narrative voice, it does feel like it slots neatly into other works of his. The Odin talked about here absolutely does show up in American Gods, in all his glory. The Asgardian squad who make their appearance in The Sandman step directly out of these pages. It’s the same Thor, the same Loki. It’s not the Marvel-ized versions of anything, even though Gaiman does acknowledge that he only ever got into these myths after devouring the old Mighty Thor comics as a boy.

Zoos, Shows and Airports

It has been an incredibly busy couple of weeks, which is not a legitimate excuse to neglect this thing as much as I have been. I have saved up a few things I’d like to post about to various lengths. Pretty much unrelated things, too. So, I’ll break this up into three parts, in order of importance. If you don’t like politics, I guess skip down to parts two and three.

First and foremost, been a hell of a first week back in the states. I try not to get heavily political on my blog, although I’m sure that my angry leftism shines through regardless of the prisms I hold up to it. I have been incredibly worried for many friends back in the states, at protests, at marches, even just walking around in some areas. I’m incredibly, incredibly proud when I open up my FB wall or Twitter and see that pretty much everyone I care about is taking part of these protests. They take it seriously and make me feel like I’m fairly useless over here on the other side of the world, watching, waking up every morning to check the news like a starship captain demanding a damage report after the latest volley.

I am throwing what I can at organizations that are trying to help out over there, ACLU being the biggest of these. They’ve had a great weekend and have flexed their muscles in exactly the right way, buoyed up with something like 20 million in donations since Saturday, which is record-setting and absolutely insane and shows that people actually care about someone trying to chisel most of The New Colossus off the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Even as one of nature’s pessimists it’s really heartening to see that the majority is not giving up, they’re fighting back earlier and harder than I ever would have imagined.

Having worked in nonprofits quite a bit, I just wanted to throw something out there for people who either are donating or are planning to: if you can, do a recurring payment instead of a single lump sum. A charity can do more with 5 months of 20 bucks each than 1 month of $100, because it allows them to come up with a budget far into the future and lay better plans for long term goals. Big waves of single donations are great and a hell of a lot better than nothing, but they make it intensely difficult to act proactively; you end up putting that money into entirely reactive services because you don’t know when the next payment may be coming and you don’t want to overextend. This goes for ACLU, PP, various other worthy charities.

I may approach it through black humor and cynicism but I truly do hope that things pull out of their nosedive, and that the enormous response over the last few weeks is a sign of things to come.

That’s where I’m at, basically. Watching, hoping, providing really evil jokes for friends, and trying really hard to explain the situation to my friends and coworkers over here so they don’t write the country off as completely insane.

There’s my political segment.

For my second thing: I am finding how revitalizing it is to be able to access musicals and other shows out here. I know I’ve posted about plays and stuff before, but I’ve been to three concerts in the last week, all different genres, radically different artists, and every single one I’ve walked out wanting to rush home and write until my fingers fell off. Watching performance artists in love with their work is a magical feeling, and letting your imagination drift while you watch them go crazy on stage is something you just can’t get anywhere else.

Last weekend I caught Amanda Palmer up at the Opera House. I’ve been a fan of hers… I think before I got into her now-husband Gaiman, actually, or within the same year. I can’t remember if I discovered the Dresden Dolls before or after Neverwhere but it was pretty close. She may be the queen of putting her feet in her mouth or making problematic faux pas online, but she really does put on an amazing show and absolutely radiates energy up on stage. The songs weren’t just played but explained in depth and with a level of emotional intimacy you don’t expect from a crowded theater, she had Brendan Maclean accompanying her, there was a lot of wine and ukulele and songs ranging from funny to heartbreaking from both.

16143449_10103632633016169_573479925742658936_o.jpgAlso a ten minute rant on women’s reproductive health culminating in blue-haired alien women chasing people around with a giant golden clitoris, as you do at these kind of functions. That was one of the less weird things to take up the evening, honestly, alongside her trying to channel Nick Cave as he performed on the other side of the harbour.

16178369_10103651928472919_7119124419388211914_oMidweek, on the eve of Australia Day, there was a Puscifer show. I’m an enormous Maynard James Keenan fan, Tool is basically the soundtrack to my teenage years, and I was so stoked to finally see him live in any form. The form I got was him clad in a gimp mask with a mohawk narrating the life and times of two warring factions of luchadors, acted out in a giant wrestling ring that dominated most of the stage. There were animated shorts between acts, giant holographic projections of Maynard, it was pretty amazing and their songs were so much different live.

I didn’t get any pictures of the third show I went to, on Friday, for Panic! At the Disco. A show where I suddenly very much felt my age. You know how, in your 30s, you start to feel like you’re basically still 20ish? Surround yourself with a bunch of actual teenagers and mid 20 year olds and you will instantly feel 80 or so. It was a great audience, though, probably the largest collection of LGBTQ+ folk I have encountered outside of literal gay bars in NYC or SF. Tons and tons of killer tattoos, some hair colors that definitely do not exist in the natural world, and an overwhelmingly positive attitude fostered by Brendon Urie up on stage. I seriously have no idea how the guy doesn’t keel over halfway through every show. He never stops moving. Dude was channeling everyone from Elvis to Freddie Mercury even in the span of one song. Best use of stage lights and smoke I’ve seen in a very long time, too. Machine gun strobe lights in time to blast beat chorus segments, smoke exploding out in random patterns around him while he traipsed around. Probably my favorite show of the three, and really got me thinking about writing in the sense of “wow, I need to write kind of an evilly charismatic fairy prince and I think I know exactly who I’m basing him on now.”

Now for a few weeks of relative rest, with the next big event coming up in March, some kind of a Star Wars burlesque thing that everyone I know has been raving about.

The third thing, and more for my own amusement than anyone else’s, is that we got to go out to Taronga Zoo for the first time since I visited Australia way back in 2015 and was scoping the place out before deciding on a definite international move.

It was way better this time. More exhibits were open to the public, the weather was great, we managed to catch both the trained seal and bird shows nearly back to back and sit down for them towards the end of the day. The platypus exhibit was inhabited this time and there were a handful of the weird little buggers swimming around the pools.

Also, while getting a new profile picture from my wife, I found a new friend:

adhgadhad.pngCame right up to say hello while munching on some sweet potatoes and other veggies, and very graciously did not sprint off while I carefully, in the least threatening manner I could manage, backed up until we were both in the frame. Managed not to scare him off, either, which would have made me feel terrible because who likes being interrupted in the middle of their lunch by a lumbering giant with no sense of personal space?

Most of the critters were pretty friendly, honestly. The corvids got right up close to you, the meerkat babies were running right up near the glass, the tazzie devils were snoozing in their burrow areas right where you could kneel down and see them. It’s a great zoo and one where you can tell the animals are pretty happy and very well cared for, with zookeepers constantly making the rounds and checking up on things. Plenty of zoo-related charity stuff too, in terms of breed and release programs and endangered species care. I wish I was a millionaire and could fund the cassowary repopulation effort with the wave of a hand.


So that’s about it for life stuff. I’ve got a tattoo this coming Saturday, a consultation for another tattoo on Wednesday, a haircut the week after, but other than that it’s pretty quiet.

I’ve decided I’m going to change things a little bit on the blog here and try to portion my posts out in more specific categories. I went looking for a review I’d written awhile back at a friend’s request and realized that they’re really difficult to dig for without scrolling through other posts, so I’m going to post reviews separately from life and writing related pieces and label them a little more clearly. I may go back and grab all of the prior reviews to stick in their own column on the blog under a dropdown menu, I think it’s pretty easy to backdate them so they don’t show up as new posts on feeds but apologies if I screw that up somehow and anyone gets spammed. I do have a ton of books I’ve read recently that I’m going to review in the coming days, some really good ones that I only heard about through word of mouth and would like to pass on.

Old Books, New Fairies, Forgotten Women

First off, I really just want to take a moment here and encourage people who want to write but haven’t started yet: you really should start. Everyone wants to have written a book. The hard part is not actually coming up with the ideas. I have friends who claim to not have a creative bone in their bodies but who still throw out cool ideas for settings or characters and blow my mind. The hard part is approaching it like a job, blocking out a time per day when you work on it, and forcing yourself to sit down and do that work at that assigned time. It saps the romance out of writing but it will leave you with a manuscript, and the manuscript will go further towards paying your bills than the idea of romance or “the zone” or “muses” will.

There’s a very good reason that widely published, beloved, brilliant writers all say the exact same thing: start putting words on the page and fix them up later, because you’re never going to get them perfect on the first go.

I got half an anthology put together over a couple of months of doing this. It’s doing well. I’m not going to be buying a house with what it brought in, but my co-author and I can certainly put the proceeds towards fancy booze and nice boots, and more importantly it got people looking at our weird stuff. Wouldn’t have that if we didn’t make ourselves approach it like a deadline at an office job.

I have carried that over into my solo stuff pretty handily now that I’m back in the habit. I have two, going on three project spinning outside of my day job right now. The everpresent war and nationbuilder epic that will not be done for awhile, and more recently that fairytale I started working on last month. I may start another one if I can block out the time for it and not deprive myself of too much reading time, but we’ll see.

Anyway, the fairy thing.

It literally started with a pitch I scribbled to myself after waking up early one morning: Mad Max – Fury Road meets The Dark Crystal. A caravan traveling across a post apocalyptic wasteland infested by horrifying, flesh eating, Froud-inspired fairies and spirits. I made a box around that concept and started making notes in the margins over a couple of weeks. Incorporate the old school Welsh bardic traditions and other oral historian orders. Translate that into modern music somehow. Take the idea of a “queen of air and darkness” like Mab from Midsummer Night’s Dream and work it into an entire host of fairies. Figure out how fairies would go up against a modern military. Figure out why they would go up against a modern military.

A week later I had an incredibly rough outline, and two days after that I shrugged, said “alright, one thousand words a day, go” and started free writing in accordance with that outline.

I should be breaking 20,000 words on that today, or 1/5th of the first draft.

0c8fc758e6bc67308259b06975078c95.jpgThat’s a secondary story. That’s something I’m only putting less than an hour a day into. If I maintain that word count give or take a thousand a day, that’s a completed draft in less than four months. It may be complete trash that everyone hates, because I doubt there’s a huge intersection out there between fans of post apocalyptic survival road trip stories and the fairy courts, but it’ll be done and that’s the most important part. A finished draft.

You can absolutely do that. Trust me, I’m easily distracted, I have too many hobbies, I go to look something up and get sidetracked reading about weird historical tidbits that no one cares about for two hours, if I can hold myself to this you can too, and you should. It’s good for you.

So that’s my self-indulgent attempt at a pep talk, and setting the stage for what I really want to talk about for a little bit.

Because I’m writing fairies, and I want to do something new with them, I’ve gone back to some of the older texts about fairyland and fairytales. Urban fantasy is chock-full of fairies to the point that the new generation have their own well-defined tropes, ones that I don’t want to include. The older stories that served as a springboard are much weirder and largely forgotten to the public, which makes them perfect to mine for raw materials and inspiration.

It gave me an excuse to go back to a favorite book of mine, and one that I consider criminally underappreciated and unknown, along with its author.

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It’s called Lud-In-The-Mists, by Hope Mirrlees, and if you enjoy fantasy stories, poetry, even just literature in general it has probably influenced some of your favorites. Hope Mirrlees has become a little bit of an author’s/scholar’s writer and I’ve found her to be virtually unknown outside of people researching the roots of different kinds of storytelling.

220px-HopeMirrlees.jpgYou can learn some details about Hope from her wikipedia article and cited sources, but the short version is that she sharp, articulate, well-read woman during a time when those traits were not particularly valued in women. She was a polyglot who spoke Russian, Spanish, French and devoured the contemporary and classical literature from each of those countries, traveled extensively throughout Europe and South Africa, and cultivated friendships with many great scholarly figures of the time. She was incredibly close friends with Jane Harrison, an early feminist and suffragette, and someone known in classical mythology circles for defining the boundaries of what we consider the Greco-Roman mythos today. She was good friends with T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf and a host of others. Her poetry influenced many, and her stories influenced many more.

Lud was her only foray into fantasy, and one of the greatest books of the genre. It incorporates, subverts and critiques elements of the hero’s journey cycle two decades before that cycle was clearly laid out. You will find trace elements of it in the DNA of most fantasy novels written since the 1930s.

It’s a pleasure to read. If you have an interest in fairytales, or fantasy, or just really good storytelling and narrative voices you should pick it up and give it a go. It’s short by modern standards but dense in prose and ideas. She asks you to invest some time into understanding it, but pays back way more than you put in. It’s as psychologically incisive as the best Pratchett novels and was written at a time that you had to put real legwork into the kind of research she used.

There are precious few sections I could quote for examples that don’t spoil major events, because it’s a tightly paced piece, but I always loved this section about a hero returning home after facing danger, and not necessarily missing that danger, but finding that he appreciates the banal from new angles:

But after he had heard the Note a more stay-at-home and steady young man could not have been found in Lud-in-the-Mist. For it had generated in him what one can only call a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed. It was as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands.’

From this there sprang an ever-present sense of insecurity together with a distrust of the homely things he cherished. With what familiar object – quill, pipe, pack of cards – would he be occupied, in which regular recurrent action – the pulling on or off of his nightcap, the weekly auditing of his accounts – would he be engaged when IT, the hidden menace, sprang out at him? And he would gaze in terror at his furniture, his walls, his pictures – what strange scene might they one day witness, what awful experience might he one day have in their presence?

[…]

From his secret poison there was, however, some sweetness to be distilled. For the unknown thing that he dreaded could at times be envisaged as a dangerous cape that he had already doubled. And to lie awake at night in his warm feather bed, listening to the breathing of his wife and the soughing of the trees, would become, from this attitude, an exquisite pleasure.

He would say to himself, “How pleasant this is! How safe! How warm! What a difference from that lonely heath when I had no cloak and the wind found the fissures in my doublet, and my feet were aching, and there was not moon enough to prevent my stumbling, and IT was lurking in the darkness!” enhancing thus his present well-being by imagining some unpleasant adventure now safe behind him.

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

So, yeah, go out and find a copy. It’s been reprinted fairly recently with a great introduction by Neil Gaiman and some notes by Michael Swanwick. Her other books and poems are good, too, and I wish she was more popular and read more widely than she is. Whenever I see something that’s been influenced by her, I’m reminded of all those really depressing figures on how when you see brilliant old quote attributed to “unknown,” it was probably originally written by a woman who no one bothered to remember even if they liked what she said. Mirrlees is as integral to fiction as all those forgotten women Harvard employed to document astral bodies were to space exploration.

Tricksy Tricksters

I saw Moana this last week, and read some very good books. I did not do this intentionally, but found that they all contained a similar thread: they were all about tricksters.

I like trickster characters a lot. I always have. I gravitated towards the Odysseus stories the most out of all the classical canon because he seemed like the thinking man’s hero who generally couldn’t rely on his brawn to get things done. He had to outwit and outmaneuver most of his foes. Out of Norse mythology I love Loki, and not just the snarky version we get in the Marvel universe. Something that has always drawn me to Native American folklore and storytelling is the prevalence of trickster archetypes over every other archetype combined. I find that as a Jewish dude, many of my own folk heroes are tricksters, be they biblical or more contemporary media. They’re a mainstay of African American literature and you could argue that the best Shakespeare plays feature prominent tricksters. They’re everywhere, and when they’re done well, I love them.

Hell, it’s the reliance on tricksters that probably drew me to Neil Gaiman’s body of work in the first place. The dude loves them even more than I do and his knowledge of them dwarfs what I would consider my above-average knowledge of the archetype in both mythology and pop culture.

They’re just so much fun. They generally never come from a position of power. They’re underdogs who have to scrap and claw their way to greatness, and most of us love stories like that. They’re regularly confronted by people who could kick their ass without breaking a sweat, and the only way to survive those situations is by wit and manipulation. Half of them are, admittedly, terrible people and not what you’d call role models, but they readily demonstrate the possibilities of lateral thought as a skill that should be cultivated.

Anyway, with that bias divulgedhere are my brief reviews.

moana-disney-accused-of-brownfacing-after-releasing-maui-s-costume.jpgMoana was brilliant. Easily my favorite Disney movie since the 90s, and I liked Tangled and Frozen. I went into it afraid that it was going to fall into some bad traps, but it avoided them splendidly. Polynesian tattoo culture was given the respect it is due as a form of familial tracking and storytelling instead of just decoration. The first and only animated film you’re likely to see that features a scene of mallet and bone comb tattooing, and they didn’t just cover the men with them. Moana’s grandmother sports a backpiece anyone with an appreciation for ink would be jealous of.

My fascination with tattoo stuff aside, it was just a fun movie. It made you feel good without being cloying about it. The music is gorgeous, even if there are points where you want to maybe pull Lin-Manuel Miranda aside and remind him he doesn’t have to do Hamilton breakdown raps in everything. The soundtrack is addictive and I’ve had it on my ipod practically nonstop since seeing the movie, particularly Jemaine Clement channeling late 70s David Bowie as a gilded coconut crab (seriously, go see this movie).

I liked that Maui didn’t steal the stage from Moana at any point. As most they were co-stars, and she did a lot of the heavy lifting without him taking the credit for it. I was really afraid that they’d downplay the trickster elements of his demigod character because, frankly, if you have The Rock in your cast as a giant muscled dude it’s probably pretty hard to fight the urge to have him blow things up. Instead he was much more reliant on his tools and magic than his brawn, because he was routinely going up against things that made him look scrawny by comparison. That was cool and unexpected. Moana is one of the most badass Disney princesses (still trying to work out if tribal chieftain’s daughter still counts) and I like that there was emphasis on her being groomed to run things on the island herself instead of being married off with the conflict coming from somewhere other than romantic entanglement, as even some of the most well-meaning Disney flicks have done in the past.


Moving on from that, let’s talk books.

519egzFQhRL.jpgFirst, I picked up Vicious with VE Schwab, a book that I’ve had on my kindle for over a year but kept failing to read, and now I very much regret that. Schwab’s narrative voice is a delight to read, frankly. She mixes sinister with funny without detracting from either tone, and the characters are all incredibly well developed for having what amounts to a couple of days together plus flashbacks to ten years prior. Victor is the definition of a good antihero in the sense that he is the protagonist, and he is going up against people worse than he is, but he’s an absolutely deplorable murderer and torturer in his own right and you kind of hate yourself for liking him. But you do like him, and you can see why his motley crew of companions stick with him beyond fear of his powers.

Speaking of which, something that scared me off reading this was someone describing it to me as Superman versus Luthor but with Luthor as the good guy, because I’d already seen variations of that in Megamind and Doctor Horrible. It is not that. It is way better than that. It has a collection of powers and a take on superheroes that you’ll be thinking about long after you put the book down. Stuff I have not seen before, and I consider myself a pretty well-read nerd on things like this. Good enough that I’ve already loaded up Schwab’s other, urban fantasy tinged novels on the ground that if they’re half this good I’ll probably still love them.

51Rcp8q7u-L.jpgFinally, I picked up the climax to one of my favorite series ever, The Fall of the House of Cabal. It perfectly caps off the prior books and short stories, wrapping up loose ends and dipping the entire knot in sealing wax to create a work of art. It’s a strong story, one that knows exactly how it’s going to end when it starts out, if that makes any sense. The problem I’m running into here is that it’s book five in a quintet, and I can’t really talk about anything I liked in it without spoiling the prior books. So, instead, I’ll talk a little bit about those prior books and why you should go read them (and this) if you already haven’t.

So.

You guys know how I’m a gigantic Terry Pratchett fan, yes? I can’t go five feet without thinking of how Discworld applies to a situation, I quote him as often as I do Tolkien, I can’t think of a single author who shaped my worldviews as much as he did, right?

I say with my hand to my heart that Jonathan L Howard is just about the only living author I can think of who approaches Terry Pratchett’s skill, at least of the authors I read.

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The Cabal series is an exploration of a certain style of literature where horror, strangeness, science fiction, fantasy and comedy are blended together and refuse to acknowledge boundary lines. There are scenes where you’ll burst out laughing and then immediately blink back tears. They’re also written in era-appropriate prose somewhere in the 1930s-1940s, channeling Wodehouse with a supernatural tinge.

They have a little something for everyone, and that’s what makes them work. Howard doesn’t stick with one genre, although he could have made it into a period piece urban fantasy if he really wanted. That would be too easy and constricting.

You’ve got Necromancer, a Faustian bargain story inspired by the same demonic carnivals that gave us Something Wicked This Way Comes but is told from the perspective of the carnival’s owner, who really isn’t all such a bad person and has his reason for ripping peoples’ souls out. Detective is a murder mystery channeling the best of Agatha Christie aboard a zeppelin midflight. The Fear Institute is a beautiful riff on HP Lovecraft and his dreamwlands setting, underappreciated and often forgotten in the cavalcade of Cthulhu ripoff stories. Brothers Cabal is every Hammer Horror trope mushed together and stewed over a low heat.

They are some of the books I go back and read again and again, and that’s before I even get into the novellas/short stories.

What I love about Johannes Cabal is that he is such a great take on the smartest man in the room trope, a beloved archetype whose social awkwardness is outpaced by his brilliance, which is such a dominant trait that people can’t help but throw themselves at him and want to befriend him (see: Sherlock, House, etc). This time it’s played straight. He’s the smartest man in the room and people generally hate his guts because he is so overbearing and unable to read others’ emotions that you want to reach into the text and slap him. It’s a breath of fresh air for a worn out character type today. He’s a perfect trickster, too, in that he often finds his necromatic powers dwarfed by the foes he goes up against – or simply by the guns he usually finds pointed in his direction when he makes one too many badly timed sarcastic remarks.

The books are all good. I think the quality of Brothers dips a little bit by sheer virtue of not being about Johannes so much as split between him and his less interesting brother, but it’s still a damned good read and head and shoulders above most books you might compare it to.